The Trump foreign legacy: the bark was worse than the bite


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

As I write this article, President Trump is in his final day in office and preparing to leave the White House in the wee hours of dawn. By the time this article appears, President Biden will have begun to unwind the Trump legacy, particularly on the domestic front.

The efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and the speed of vaccinations will be accelerated as the country surpasses 400,000 deaths; the ban on Muslims entering the United States will be lifted; there will be a more humane approach to migration; a new $1.9tn economic stimulus package will be pushed through Congress; and the constant demonisation of political opponents will be replaced by a welcome message of civility and unity.

Trump leaves office with an approval rating of 34% – the lowest of his presidency and one of the lowest for any departing US president. This suggests that, somewhat belatedly, a majority of Americans have recognised Trump’s corrosive influence on the country’s democratic institutions and the integrity of its elections, not to speak of his failed promises to revive manufacturing jobs, rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, reform immigration and reduce the national debt. His one domestic achievement is a tax cut in 2017, which arguably had little impact or justification, given that the US jobs market was relatively buoyant at the time.

What will those historians think when they turn to Trump’s foreign policy legacy?

Future historians will undoubtedly view the Trump presidency as four years of campaigning rather than of governing. It is indeed difficult to recall a serious, reflective speech that Trump ever delivered on a domestic policy issue.

Yet what will those historians think when they turn to Trump’s foreign policy legacy? Will they conclude that it was equally negative, barren and harmful to international peace and prosperity as the isolationism and beggar-thy-neighbour economic protectionism of the US between the two World Wars?

At first sight many would reach this conclusion. Trump’s four years in the White House witnessed a concerted attack on multilateralism and the pillars of the liberal global order. The president withdrew from the Paris climate accords, the World Health Organization and the UN Human Rights Council. He abrogated the nuclear deal with Iran and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces and Open Skies aerial observation agreements with Russia. He lambasted America’s allies, called the European Union a threat to the US and threatened to withdraw the US security guarantee to NATO. In his speech to the UN General Assembly, he declared the age of multinational integration to be over and extolled the virtues of nationalism and unbridled sovereignty.

Like Samson pulling the temple down over his head, he seemed intent on freeing the US from international rules and obligations so that it could maximise its power and leverage bilateral relations. By the time Trump left office, his administration had imposed almost 100 sets of sanctions against allies and adversaries alike.

It is easy from all of this to conclude that Trump has left the world a more dangerous place and allowed the West’s authoritarian adversaries to steal a march on democracies. But is this true? Although Trump’s foreign policy legacy is hardly that of Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman when it comes to building new institutions or alliances, did it inflict lasting damage to the extent that it will be near impossible for Biden to reassert US leadership or repair the multilateral order?

Trump preferred to negotiate or impose sanctions to make America’s adversaries bend to his will

In the spirit of objectivity and fairness, it is worth looking beyond the headlines at some of the fundamentals.

First, military operations. Trump was the first president in a generation that did not launch a major military operation or embroil the US in a new conflict. The notable exception was a US strike against Syria following the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Despite the occasional fiery rhetoric, especially against North Korea, Trump preferred to negotiate or impose sanctions to make America’s adversaries bend to his will. Drone strikes and selective special forces operations eliminated terrorist leaders and foreign commanders. Naval deployments in the Persian Gulf and the Taiwan Straits emphasised deterrence rather than intervention. Trump may not have achieved his objective to bring all the US troops home from the Middle East or Afghanistan by the end of his term, but only 2,500 remain in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively, and all US forces have left Somalia.

The declining US military footprint abroad has forced local parties to take their future into their own hands, like the government of Ashraf Ghani in Kabul negotiating with the Taliban in Doha or Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain opening diplomatic relations with Israel to contain Iran.

Yet it is far from clear that these troop withdrawals will help bring about a lasting peace – the sudden announcement of US withdrawal from northern Syria only encouraged Turkey to crack down against the Kurds. It is also doubtful that countries in the Middle East and Africa will be able to effectively combat terrorism and insurgency if the Pentagon ceases its mentoring and training of local forces.

Perhaps if Trump had won a second term, he might have inflicted a fatal blow on NATO

A second area is Russia. At the beginning of his term Trump praised Putin, refusing to make him accountable for Russian interference in the American election and declaring repeatedly that the US could only benefit from better relations with Russia. Europeans worried that Trump would make a deal that was detrimental to their security over their heads, yet this never happened.

The US imposed sanctions on Russia for its use of the Novichok nerve agent in the UK, supplied weapons to Ukraine and supported Russian opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny. It pushed hard against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline – which transports Russian gas to Germany – and sent extra troops, equipment and strategic bombers to Eastern Europe to buttress NATO’s collective defence. The US stridently criticised Moscow for arms control treaty violations. It shut Russian banks and oligarchs out of the US and its financial system. Summits with Putin became a rarity and the Russian leader would be hard pressed to identify an area where he gained anything significant from the Trump presidency.

This reasoning can be extended to NATO. Allies were initially perplexed by Trump’s lukewarm, if not hostile, attitude towards the alliance. He was obsessed with budgets, burden-sharing and the sense that allies owed money to the US for past military protection – as if NATO were merely a transactional arrangement. He questioned the US’s willingness to uphold its Article 5 defence commitment to the allies and even spoke privately to his aides about withdrawing from the NATO treaty. There were some nerve-wracking NATO summits with Trump when allies tried in vain to persuade him of the real contributions that they were making to the alliance’s missions and modernisation. Perhaps if Trump had won a second term, he might have inflicted a fatal blow on NATO, but he leaves office before his decision to withdraw 12,000 US troops from Germany could be carried out.

Moreover, during the Trump years the Pentagon, with the support of both Republicans and Democrats, was in the driving seat when it came to NATO. Additional US forces were sent to Poland and Lithuania, extra money was spent on military infrastructure in Poland, and US ships, planes, armoured vehicles and troops were sent in large numbers to Europe every year to participate in NATO training exercises. The Pentagon even established a new NATO maritime command to protect the lines of communication across the Atlantic.

Trump may have shaken up Europeans on their commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defence, but this secured an extra $130bn for the alliance’s military budgets – something that Trump’s more polite predecessors had not been able to achieve. Trump was sceptical about further NATO enlargement but North Macedonia became NATO’s 30th member with barely a whimper from Washington. Space also became a new domain of operations for the alliance, reflecting Trump’s interest in this area. Many leaders in Eastern Europe have made it clear that they are sad to see Trump go. Despite the president’s theatricality, it would be difficult to argue that Trump is more responsible than Turkey or France for the political divisions that have emerged in NATO during the last four years.

There has been a genuine rethinking about how we perceive China

The next major area is China. A lasting legacy of the Trump years is to have changed international perceptions of China, particularly in the transatlantic community. Trump made a point that the allies have reluctantly come to accept: China was invited to join multilateralist structures like the WTO on the assumption that it would play by the rules and become a reliable partner in the process, but it has not. Instead, China has used its presence on occasion to stymie the work of these organisations or use them as vehicles for propounding its own narrative on events.

At the beginning of the Trump administration, many of the US’s allies saw China essentially as a trading partner and source of investment. Today, nearly all see Beijing as a systemic competitor. Their concerns have extended well beyond trade conditions and market access to focus on technological supremacy, supply chain integrity, foreign ownership, human rights, labour exploitation and China’s treatment of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

At first the frictions in the US-China relationship were largely blamed on Trump and his pressure tactics. Today the blame is focusing more on President Xi. China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and more aggressive disinformation activities have made it easier for Trump to ring the alarm bell. The US also put pressure on the Europeans to eliminate Huawei from their 5G telecommunication networks and to take action against other Chinese companies selling facial recognition technologies or investing in Europe’s energy and transport sectors.

Certainly, the US went too far in threatening to cancel intelligence cooperation with key allies like the UK and Germany, but the greater European scepticism about China’s long-term strategy cannot be attributed to US pressure alone. There has been a genuine rethinking about how we perceive China and a rush to come up with policies that seek to constrain and protect as much as to cooperate. Even NATO has begun a major effort to assess China in the military, diplomatic, economic and technology fields. Trump’s pressure tactics and strong rhetoric may not be the solution that Europeans are looking for, but they realise that their focus on the liberalising benefits of trade was hardly the solution either.

Trump will hardly be seen by future historians as a consequential foreign policy president

Finally, international trade. Trump fixated on an issue that resonates across US society and in both Republican and Democratic circles – that of fairness. Trade for him was a prime example of the US losing out due to generous access to its domestic market, whereas allies and partners threw up protectionist barriers and enjoyed healthy trade surpluses. Economists such as Paul Krugman tried hard to point out that economics is not quite that simple and that the US benefited from an open trading system in multiple other ways – for instance services, banking and attracting inward investment.

The simple truth is that US manufacturing and labour unions took up his message of unfair competition. Yet Trump did not dismantle the international trading system; the US did not withdraw from the WTO although it did impede the work of its arbitration panels. Trump renegotiated NAFTA with Canada and Mexico but in a minor way that kept it as an open, integrated continental market. The hostile rhetoric against China did not prevent Trump from negotiating a Phase One trade and investment deal with China.

No trade war broke out with the EU; both sides imposed sanctions and tariffs against the other but these were in line with WTO trade dispute rulings that concerned issues going back several years before Trump’s presidency, for instance subsidies to Airbus and Boeing or genetically modified agricultural products. Trump’s unilateralism prevented him from reaching out to the EU and other partners to use their combined weight to persuade China to offer better market access and intellectual property protection – this will be a core priority for the new Biden administration. Yet again Trump’s actions have preserved the previous status quo and left old issues unresolved, instead of leading to a great US-China decoupling or any less dependency of the US economy on smooth international trade.

In conclusion, Trump will hardly be seen by future historians as a consequential foreign policy president. He is neither a Calvin Coolidge when it comes to pushing the US into dangerous isolationism, nor a Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to building a new international order around US exceptionalism. In reality Trump’s legacy is less one of destruction than one of absence from a multilateral system that largely proceeded on its course without him. The Europeans worked with their like-minded democracies in Asia and Canada. They discussed new goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, invented the COVAX programme for distributing COVID-19 vaccines to the developing countries, exchanged ideas on regulating the social media companies and opened up new trade and investment opportunities in Latin America, India and China. They have tried to keep the Iran nuclear pact alive despite US opposition and increased their financial contributions to the WHO as Washington reduced its own.

The main task of the Biden administration is less therefore to rebuild the multilateral order than to figure out how the US can re-insert itself back into the game. There is a lot of catching up and listening to do. How the Biden administration can do this best will be the subject of much discussion.

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